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For any music lover, that image captures the essence of an authentic experience of the blues. In Blue Chicago, David Grazian takes us inside the world of contemporary urban blues clubs to uncover how such images are manufactured and sold to music fans and audiences. Drawing on countless nights in dozens of blues clubs throughout Chicago, Grazian shows how this quest for authenticity has transformed the very shape of the blues experience. He explores the ways in which professional and amateur musicians, club owners, and city boosters define authenticity and dish it out to tourists and bar regulars. He also tracks the changing relations between race and the blues over the past several decades, including the increased frustrations of black musicians forced to slog through the same set of overplayed blues standards for mainly white audiences night after night. In the end, Grazian finds that authenticity lies in the eye of the beholder: a nocturnal fantasy to some, an essential way of life to others, and a frustrating burden to the rest.
From B.L.U.E.S. and the Checkerboard Lounge to the Chicago Blues Festival itself, Grazian's gritty and often sobering tour in Blue Chicago shows us not what the blues is all about, but why we care so much about that question.
The Politics of Race and Authenticity
When the downtown nightclubs had closed, most of these Harlem places crawled with white people. These whites were just mad for Negro "atmosphere," especially some of the places which had what you might call Negro soul. Sometimes Negroes would talk about how a lot of whites seemed unable to have enough of being close around us, and among us-in groups. Both white men and women, it seemed, would get almost mesmerized by Negroes. -Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Racial Politics of the Chicago Blues. Musicians, critics, and fans of American blues music have always championed an ideology that regards the dialectical relationship between musician and audience as its paramount concern. They depict the blues as populist music that appeals to audiences on the basis of its ability to express a universal set of emotions, whether despair, longing, fear, or jealousy. At the same time, myths surrounding the social role of blues musicians have always emphasized their desires to please their listeners in exchange for whiskey and gin, spare change, enthusiastic applause, and sexual favors. Local blues musicians tend to internalize such myths by comporting themselves as craftsmen performing in the service of their audiences. Unlike artists in fields considered more avant-garde, such as atonal jazz or performance art, blues musicians frequently conceptualize artistic success in terms of public popularity and financial profitability.
Perhaps as a result, blues musicians have traditionally structured their performances in order to meet the assumed expectations of their audiences. In Chicago the blues helped to define a certain kind of urban life for local blacks seeking refuge and entertainment in the segregated neighborhoods where they worked and resided from the time of the Great Migration until the 1960s. Since South and West Side blues taverns served a steady clientele of local patrons, they were able to function as urban havens where community residents, musicians, and even the occasional white visitor could congregate and socialize. The consistency of neighborhood audiences allowed these clubs and their employees to cater to highly specific kinds of consumer tastes and demands.
The populist and participatory quality of the blues at this time revealed itself in the stylistic shifts fashioned by musicians as they struggled to follow the changing demands of their audiences. During the 1920s urban vaudeville and cabaret singers emphasized the comedic and sexual elements of Tin Pan Alley numbers in order to curry favor with urban blacks and slumming whites. In later years boogie-woogie pianists developed a faster syncopated blues to suit dancing crowds at rent parties and small local taverns. During the 1940s jump blues singers performed ballads at venues like the Flame Club on Chicago's South Side, and in the early 1950s musicians shifted toward perfecting a more rural sound heavily influenced by the country-blues of the Mississippi Delta. While stylistic and thematic continuities (including the reliance on twelve- and sixteen-bar chord progressions, flattened third and seventh notes, backbeat rhythms, and lyrical allusions to labor, poverty, escape, love, and death) have remained in the blues idiom in spite of these changes, musicians have continually reinvented the blues tradition in order to suit the shifting tastes of their audiences.
But during the 1960s the popularity of blues music in Chicago among black audiences dropped considerably. Delta-raised blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf gradually fell out of favor among urban black audiences, who derided their countrified and somewhat old-fashioned styles of performance as "gutbucket," "low-class" music because it served as a reminder of the toil and racism of the southern plantations they had left behind. As the popularity of modern soul, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and Motown pop music grew exponentially among black consumers during this time, radio airplay, jukebox popularity, and record and ticket sales dropped sharply for more traditional blues artists.
Meanwhile, white audiences began listening to blues musicians with greater frequency in Chicago's black neighborhood taverns and uptown clubs, and visitors slowly began to trickle down to the city to watch them perform. The irony of this commercial shift is striking: while blues musicians like Waters had trouble packing black neighborhood bars in cities like Detroit and Minneapolis during the 1960s, these same artists found increased popularity among large white audiences of jazz, folk, and rock music in stadiums and concert halls across America and Europe. The increased popularity of blues among whites in Chicago occurred as a result of several coinciding events. The emergent folk revival during the early 1960s revalorized rural country-blues music across the nation because its unrestrained, rustic melodies were considered a more "authentic" alternative to the highly commodified rock and pop offerings by the major record labels and commercial radio. At the same time, prominent blues legends like Waters gained exposure as black popular culture grew more visible among white Americans during the rise of the civil rights movement.
But perhaps the most significant reason for the rising popularity of blues music among white audiences in Chicago is that an increasing number of white musicians performing blues locally as well as internationally made the blues seem more accessible to mainstream white audiences. These musicians included celebrated pop stars like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, who incorporated a diverse selection of blues motifs and styles into their folk and rock compositions and performances. But in Chicago these musicians also included scores of white hipsters and self-proclaimed bohemians who hobnobbed with local black performers in South Side blues taverns; racially mixed areas of the city such as the famed Maxwell Street Market, where Jewish merchants sold their wares alongside black street performers and hollerers; and up-and-coming blues bars located in gentrifying North Side neighborhoods in the city. Today these white performers make up a sizable proportion of Chicago's blues musicians: they include young musicians who have recently begun to establish themselves in the local music scene and more experienced players who have sustained longer, if marginal, careers in the city's blues clubs.
As a result of the newfound popularity of blues music in Chicago among white audiences, blues bars began rapidly proliferating in the North Side neighborhoods where they resided. By the mid-1980s blues musicians could find relatively steady employment performing in these establishments as they began to attract large audiences consisting of suburban professionals and international business and leisure travelers. However, by this time the local blues clubs that had formerly hosted small crowds of local residents-clubs like B.L.U.E.S.-had become transformed into full-blown tourist attractions, and many of their new patrons possessed a less differentiated set of tastes and expectations regarding the music performed in them.
Today a notable consequence of this shift is that contemporary audiences are far more likely to evaluate the performances of local blues musicians on the basis of largely symbolic distinctions-particularly race-instead of their individually based stylistic qualities or deficiencies. Specifically, for many consumers, blackness connotes an extreme sense of authenticity, or what we might call the cultural construction of "soul" as a dominant racial stereotype. It is for this reason that in Chicago, the owners of tourist-oriented blues clubs almost exclusively hire black musicians, and many rarely hire white musicians at all. Elliot, a white singer and guitarist who performs in several downtown clubs, explains:
It's because white audiences and owners are ignorant. The owners know that tourists will ask at the door, "Well, is the band playing tonight a black band, or is it a white band?" Because the tourists only want to hear black bands, because they want to see an authentic Chicago blues band, and they think a black band is more real, more authentic. When they come to Chicago, it's like they want to go to the "Disneyland of the Blues." You know, it's like this: people want German cars, French chefs, and, well, they want their bluesmen black. It's a designer label.
In fact, while audiences appreciate the performative aspects of the musician's stage act, they nevertheless demand to hear performances based, in part, on preconceived expectations regarding the authenticity of the stereotypical black blues player. As Wally, the aforementioned Australian from the introduction, asks regarding a local show in the city: "So, it'll be the real deal, then, with a big black band playing up there and all?" Likewise, white audience members frequently direct insulting remarks at nonblack artists during their performances. One night as Marc, a young white singer and harmonica player, approaches the stage for a guest appearance, an audience member shouts from the back of the bar in drunken disgust: "Don't sound like no blues singer! ... Don't look like no blues singer!"
Meanwhile, Franz, a middle-age blues fan from Germany, disparages one white bandleader's performance for what he regards as a lack of racial authenticity; he protests: "He just sings like a million other white guys. His voice, his singing-it is not authentic." He counters this attitude with his enthusiastic approval of a rival black bandleader: "I like him; he is very good. He is very emotional when he sings. Very authentic, you know?" He clarifies his position by describing the reception of blues music abroad:
In Germany the blues is so popular that a show like this would have to be in a bigger club, because there would be maybe eight hundred people there, and they would all be cheering the whole time. But in Germany the blues musicians would have to be black, because if they were white, no one would come to see them. They would have to be black.
This way of thinking is characteristic of the general cultural framework employed by many of the white music enthusiasts who actively participate in Chicago's blues culture: in fact, some amateur white musicians even deny their own authenticity on the basis of racial difference. During a jam session at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, a now-defunct satellite club of B.L.U.E.S. formerly located on Belmont Avenue in the North Side neighborhood of Lakeview, Nick, a keyboardist and new arrival to the city from South Carolina, expresses his frustration with his playing by sighing, "Never in my life have I felt so white." I remind him that there are plenty of white musicians present at the club in addition to himself, but he qualifies his remark by explaining that his performance itself is "white" because it lacks emotional drive and, therefore, authenticity: "Part of the problem for me, I guess, is that I'm pretty happy, you know, no complaints, and so I don't really have the blues, so it's hard to play it. Maybe if I go home and break up with my girlfriend, then at least I'll have a reason to have the blues." In criticizing his own performance by drawing on a commonly held racial stereotype, Nick gives voice to an assumption shared by many of the audience members who attend the city's blues clubs.
This assumption of racial difference extends to other ethnic groups as well. During a performance at which Philip, who is originally from Japan, plays with a group of black musicians, Mike and Jolynn offer their impressions. "You know that Sesame Street song, 'One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong'?" sings Mike. "'Cause when you see some Japanese guy, you don't think, 'Oh, blues.' ... That's more part of the South, really." Nodding in agreement, Jolynn adds, "I'm actually most surprised that they let him in the band at all!" This kind of confusion over race and authenticity extends to bar staff as well; on the presumed relationship between Philip's Japanese roots and his musical abilities, Jack (who is white) remarks, "He's a strong guitar player, but he doesn't know the language of the blues ... but that's not surprising, given his background. As someone who studies cultures and societies and stuff like that, you probably understand just what I'm talking about, right, Dave?"
"The Great Music Robbery" and the Problem with Authenticity. These concerns expressed in Chicago blues bars echo the nagging fears and anxieties expressed during the 1960s by both black and white cultural critics who worried that the rising popularity of white blues musicians at that time signaled a loss in the meaning and integrity of the blues idiom. As Joel Rudinow argues in an aptly titled essay that asks the question "Can white people sing the blues?" this concern typically manifests itself in two separate but related critiques. First, a "proprietary" argument equates "white blues" with actual theft, or what the poet and musicologist Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) refers to in one essay as "The Great Music Robbery":
The more subtle functioning of black national oppression carries with it many not so delicious ironies. For instance, now that the music and the culture are no longer termed inferior or primitive as articles of faith, the notion in the last few years has been simply to claim it! The racist line more and more now holds white players, etc., responsible for the high points of the music. The corporations through their media and bourgeois scribblers not only continually push and emphasize the greatness of white musicians, orchestras, arrangements, approach to the music, etc., but more and more each year lay claim to the music's very creation! And of course, as responsible for most of its excellence. ... We are now told magnanimously that R&B influenced Rock & Roll. Whew! My friends, Rock & Roll is Rhythm & Blues! We realize Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, etc., could never get as rich and famous as Elvis Presley and company who are written about as if they has actually originated something rather than copied.... So the Great Music Robbery is, boldly, an attempt by the bourgeoisie to claim and coopt, in a growingly more obvious way, black music as the creation of whites.
While this approach characterizes the blues in terms of cultural and ethnic ownership, an "experiential access" argument suggests that even empathetic whites cannot truly comprehend or authentically express the subtle meanings inherent in blues music, because such an understanding can only be learned through experiencing life as a black person. Again, Baraka provides the canonical model; as he asserts in Blues People:
Blues as an autonomous music had been in a sense inviolable. There was no clear way into it, i.e. its production, not its appreciation, except as concomitant with what seems to me to be the peculiar social, cultural, economic, and emotional experience of a black man in America. The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle-class blues singer. The materials of blues were not available to the white American, even though some strange circumstance might prompt him to look for them. It was as if these materials were secret and obscure, and blues a kind of ethno-historic rite as basic as blood.
Excerpted from Blue Chicago by DAVID GRAZIAN Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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